Child Support Laws and Expectations

IF YOU’RE NEWLY divorced and you have children, odds are you’re probably just getting acquainted with the concept of child support. After all, child support law and regulation can be complex and confusing.

“I have never met a parent who felt like he or she was receiving sufficient child support. Likewise, most parents who pay child support feel that he or she is paying too much,” says Nicole Sodoma, a family law attorney, founder and managing principal of Sodoma Law, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

What Is Child Support?

As a parent, you are required to support your child financially. If you do not have custody of your child, in most cases, you are required by law to provide money to the other parent with custody of your son or daughter until your child becomes an adult. If you have custody of your child and you’re a single parent receiving child support, you may be concerned that payments are delinquent or the amount of money you receive is insufficient. On the other hand, if you’re making child support payments, it can be challenging to meet your child support commitments and juggle your own finances, even if the amount of money you shell out each month seems reasonable. With that in mind, if you’re a single parent, here’s a basic primer on child support law and what you can expect.

How Does Child Support Work and How Is It Calculated?

“In most states, the calculation is provided for them and based on the parents’ gross incomes, after application of certain deductions such as health care premiums and work-related child care,” Sodoma says. In addition to a salary or expected self-employment earnings, a court may take into account tips that a parent receives, commissions, bonuses, disability payments, Social Security benefits and annuities, among other factors.

Generally, if both parents are working, and even if parents have joint custody, the parent who earns more will be paying some child support to the other parent. That said, every state is different in how they approach child support law. “The federal government has passed legislation that requires states to come up with formulas for setting child support. Each state will adhere to their formula and not deviate unless a party is of an extraordinary means or has a lot of extra children or health problems or something of the sort,” says John DeVore Compton, a family law attorney who has offices in Greenwood and Greenville, South Carolina.

In other words, if you need to get child support raised or lowered due to your financial circumstances, you may be able to change the amount. Whatever the courts decide, however, keep in mind that this is designed to help your child or children, says Dori Shwirtz, a divorce attorney who owns a company called Divorce Harmony, specializes in mediation and is based out of Miami Beach. She says that when you’re in the middle of divorce mediation, you can negotiate just about anything – except for child support.

“The state has specific guidelines on how much should be paid. They do this for the best interest of the child, so the child is protected and cared for,” Shwirtz says. “The two major factors that determine the amount are income and time-sharing, how much time each party spends with the child.” Shwirtz also stresses that these child support payments aren’t designed to punish or reward either parent. “Child support should be viewed solely through the lens of this is for your child. It’s there to serve your child’s needs. It’s not about the parents and their wants or needs,” she says.

The Amount of Child Support You Receive or Pay Can Fluctuate

As kids get older, their financial needs may change, and you or your ex-partner’s financial situation may have improved or worsened. “In North Carolina, the statutory calculation is reviewed every four years by the court to determine whether the amount of the child support guidelines is appropriate,” Sodoma says.

If you lose your job in between the court evaluating your child support payments, or there are extenuating circumstances, every state has different laws, but you’ll want to consult your attorney in case anything can be done.

That said, in his 30 years of experience, Compton says that once the guidelines are set, they can be hard to change. It’s best to make timely payments of course, not only for the good of your child, but also to avoid payments from piling up and possibly having to pay legal expenses if you’re dragged to court. In a worst-case scenario, you could have your wages garnished or go to jail.

Child Support Payments Include More Than Basics

“Child support is not to be used only for necessities like food, clothing, medical needs and so on,” Sodoma says. “Instead, child support is actually based on the reasonable needs of the child, a calculation which may include many expenses.”

For instance, if your child goes to a public or private school when he or she lives with your ex, you may be paying money toward their education. The court may include some money for basic entertainment expenses for the child. Ultimately, the goal is to make sure your children are thriving in both homes and not just one parent’s home. But how the parent receiving the child support spends the money is generally up to that parent. There are other factors the court will evaluate to determine how much should go toward child support, including whether the child lives with one parent in a city with a higher cost of living. If the child has special needs and requires expensive health care coverage, the court will also take that into consideration.

“Unfortunately, or fortunately – depending on the obligor or obligee – the use of child support is not monitored. The parent receiving the support is not required to report how he or she uses the funds,” Sodoma says.

It’s a smart idea to factor in implications beyond how much you’re giving or receiving in child support. For example, you won’t have to pay income taxes on child support that you receive, and if you’re making those payments, you can’t deduct it from your income. As for who can claim the child as a dependent, it’s typically the parent who has the child living with him or her for more than half the year. Remember: Both parents can’t claim the child as an independent. It’s a wise idea to consult with a tax accountant or lawyer for guidance. For instance, you can transfer the exemption to the noncustodial parent by signing Form 8332.

What to Do If You Aren’t Receiving Child Support Payments

Sodoma suggests keeping track of the financial support you give or receive, especially, she says, if you are not receiving child support. You want documentation of what’s being paid if the other parent suddenly disagrees with your records or has delinquent payments.

“Do consider apps like Venmo, Zelle, Cash App, PayPal and co-parenting apps for requesting reimbursements,” Sodoma says. Some of the co-parenting apps out there include Coparently ($99 per year, per parent), Our Family Wizard ($99 per year, per parent) and Talking Parents, which is free, but requires a $4.99 fee per month to download records. These apps are designed to help divorced parents communicate with each other and track parenting expenses.

So, what if one parent won’t pay child support? “Unfortunately, if one parent isn’t fulfilling his or her obligations with child support it can be a long road for the non-receiving parent. There is only so much of a remedy a court can provide,” Shwirtz says.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. However, you may be in for a long court battle. And keep in mind, federal law requires state agencies to help you track down late child support payments, and many states have Office of Recovery Services that can help you collect payments.

Compton points out that if one parent doesn’t pay child support, he or she does not lose the right to visit the child. That’s a misconception, he says.

“The one piece of advice I have for clients though is to not let your – justified – anger and resentment seep into your child’s psyche. Don’t put your child in the middle of a child support battle,” Shwirtz says.

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